Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘ER’

Why Private Practice Survives

“I’m surprised these kind of places are still open.” –Physician employed by World Class Medical Center

“And yet, here you are, bringing your mother in for a visit.” Technician checking in mother.

In my day job I am an ophthalmologist, an eye doctor who takes care of medical and surgical diseases of the eye. Our practice, SkyVision Centers, is an independent practice, what is often referred to as a “private practice”. As such we are neither connected nor beholden to either of the large organizations here in Cleveland, both of which have large ophthalmology practices with offices near us. The mother in question was originally seen on a Sunday in my office through an ER call for a relatively minor (but admittedly irritating) problem that had been ongoing for at least a week.

That is not a typo; an ophthalmologist saw a non-acute problem on a Sunday.

Now Dr. Daughter swears that she tried to get her Mom in to see a doctor all the previous week. “She” even called our office (more in a moment) and was told all of the doctors were booked. Strictly speaking, the staff member who answered the phone was absolutely correct in noting that our schedules were full (actually they were quite over-booked in the pre-Holiday rush), and that we would not be able to see a patient who had never been to our office. Dr. Daughter works for a massive health system that advertises all over town–on billboards, in print, on the radio and online–that anyone can get a same-day appointment with any kind of doctor in the system, including an eye doctor. In fact, we saw several dozen existing patients that week for same-day requested ER or urgent visits with the urgency determined by the patient, not our triage staff.

What’s my point? Dr. Daughter never made a single phone call. She had one of her staff members call on behalf of her mother; neither I nor my staff is responsive to proxy calls from staff. I know Dr. Daughter and much of her extended family. Over 25 years practicing in the same geographic area and populating the same physician panels she has sent me barely a handful of patients, even though I care for a substantial majority of that extended family. Despite that my staff would have moved Heaven and earth to find a spot for Mrs. Mom if Dr. Daughter had called either my office or me personally.

I know what you’re thinking: Mrs. Mom would get in because her daughter is a doctor. Nope. Not the case. I may have taken Dr. Daughter’s phone call for that reason, sure, but Mrs. Mom gets an on-demand ER visit despite it being our busiest time of the year because she is the family member of other existing patients. We treat family members as if they are already SkyVision patients; we just haven’t officially met them yet.

Now you’re thinking “what does this have to do with private practice?” Without meaning to be either too snarky or self-congratulatory, this is precisely why private practice continues to not only survive, but in many cases thrive. We have the privilege of putting our patients first. Really doing it. Same day urgent visits? No need to put it up on a billboard; we just answer the phone and say ‘yes’. Lest you think we are simply filling empty slots, or that we have open ER slots we leave in the schedule just in case, let me assure you that this couldn’t be further from the truth. We. Are. Booked.

Well, it must be that we are so small that the personal touch is easy. Surely if we were huge we couldn’t get away with this. Sorry, wrong again. A bunch of my buddies are orthopedic surgeons in a massive private group on our side of town. Like 15 docs massive, with all of the staff you’d expect to go along with that many doctors. Got an orthopedic emergency? You’re in. You may not get the exact doctor you’ve seen before on that first visit, but you won’t be shunted to either an ER or an office an hour away, either. The staff members making appointments for a particular office are right there, sitting up front. The same goes for the enormous Retina practice that spans 4 counties here in Northeast Ohio. Ditto for the tiny little 3-man primary care practice up the street from me, lest you think only specialists do this.

The private practice of medicine survives because the doctors go to work for their patients, and they don’t leave until the work is done. Private practice docs bend their own rules on behalf of those patients. Every day and every night. You know what happens when private practices are acquired by massive medical groups like the two 800 lb. gorillas in Cleveland? All of those rules get made by people who don’t really take care of patients at all, and they never bend a single rule ever. Those former private practice doctors become shift workers beholden to an institution, no longer working for their patients at all.

That family doctor or specialist who was routinely asked on a daily basis if someone could be squeezed in is not only no longer asked, she doesn’t even know the question was there in the first place. Everything is handled by the institution’s call center, somewhere off in a lower rent district, with no sense of what is happening at that moment in the clinic. Your doctor might have a cancellation and a spot open to see your emergency. Indeed, if she’s been your doctor for a long time she would probably rather see you herself because that would make for better care.  But there are now someone else’s rules to follow, efficiencies to achieve so that they can be touted, and institutional numbers to hit.

“I’m surprised these kind of places are still open.”

“And yet, here you are, bringing your mother in for a visit.”

On her way out, after impatiently waiting while her mother thanked me profusely for seeing her when she was uncomfortable, Dr. Daughter extolled the virtues of her employer. Fixed hours. Minimal to no evening or weekend call duty. A magnificent pension plan that vests rather quickly. I should join up, she said. She was sure that World Class Medical Center would love to have me.

I smiled and wished her, her Mom, and the extended family a Happy Holiday Season. As I turned, shaking my head a bit, my technician put her hand on my arm.

“If you did that, who would take care of her Mom?”

Medical Time Travel

CrossFitters have taken up the cause of health, given the charge of improving health and preventing decrepitude. There will always be a need for what we can call “real medical care” or sickcare (you know, rather than healthcare). After all, stuff happens. I’ve been plunged into the abyss of American sickcare as I help shepherd my Dad through a prolonged exposure.

Much has been made of the tremendous costs of the most modern medical care. There was a 20 page article (20 pages!!) in Time magazine about this last week, about inflated charges and financial gamesmanship and whatnot. True enough. Indeed, I’ve read the theory that sickcare in the U.S. was pretty darned good 10, 20, 30 years ago, and we spent much less money for it back then. Why not just use, say, 1980′s sickcare as our standard? Weren’t we pretty healthy then? It sure seemed like we could at least afford sickcare then, both on the personal and societal levels.

Here’s the rub: I saw 2013 vintage care this week, and I saw something that approximated 1985 or so. The “time travel” between 1985 and 2013 was a real eye opener. No one in their right mind would trade the best of what we have today for “1985 is good enough”. Trust me. That particular “time travel” trip was a nightmare.

Do we as a society, country, and/or economic ecosystem need to find some way to bring some sanity, some rational economics to how we buy and pay for our “sick care”? You bet. We here in the CrossFit world are on the right track as we seek health, seek to avoid the need for sickcare. But man, I gotta tell ya, if you are sick and you need to be cured, you want to be right here in North America.

And you want to be be here today, in 2013.

 

Attitude (Adopted from Sunday musings 11/4/12)

It’s funny how stressful situations remind one of the truisms of life. We are now Day 7 without power in the White house, our own “Little House on the Prairie” complete with fireplace and communal bed (shared by 3 dogs). The tiny generator we were able to score powers the fridge and the sump pump (we had 6 flooded basement episodes in 2011) but not the furnace. The temp just went UP to 52 in the house.

And yet, it’s OK. We have food and we can cook. We have wood and offers of more if we need it. Randy has become a wizard at building and stoking a fire. Me? Grunt work like foraging for wood and fuel, and starting an epically awful beard. The extent of my pique, such as it is, is refusing to wear a tie to work until the power is back on.

We’re OK largely because we have CHOSEN to be OK. It’s a bummer, and it’s a nuisance, but it’s the hand we’ve been dealt, one that is not nearly as bad as others in Sandy’s aftermath. Our attitude is in stark contrast with others on display. One neighbor, a city councilwoman no less, de-camped to a hotel after bitterly complaining about the noise of the generators, our “little engine that could” especially. “We just couldn’t take it anymore.” Really?

My staff and most of our patients handled stuff with an equally sanguine attitude, re-scheduling when necessary, coming in early or staying late, whatever. The few folks who copped a bad attitude stuck out so painfully it was comical. The gal who hung up on me when I told her I couldn’t examine her pinkeye without power (M’am, all I have is a flashlight and a toothpick). The patient coming for a surgical consult, appointment confirmed by automatic email Monday night by a computer that was as dark and dead as the rest of the office when she arrived on Tuesday, who screamed at us for 10 minutes on the phone on Wednesday. Really?

Our circumstances often arrive unchosen and uncontrollable, and most often we are left with no choice but to react to them as well as we possibly can. While the circumstances are beyond our control we certainly can control our attitude, our outlook. We are in control of how we will approach the task at hand. We are in control of how we will approach the person at hand.

Frankly, I don’t know if a positive attitude makes the tasks any easier, or makes it more palatable to get through something tough like this Sandy thing What I DO know is that it is always easier if I come across someone in similar straits, or someone I’ll need for help, if they are at least trying to “put a good face on.” I think this goes for everyday life, too, and making this your baseline choice (a good attitude) might make it easier to keep your chin up when the chips are down.

Attitude is a choice. Your attitude says more about you than it does about your circumstances.

 

 

Tales From Bellevue Hospital: 4th Of July

There are only two kinds of people in New York City: Targets, and people who hit Targets. At Bellevue we took care of the Targets.

It’s the first weekend in July. For most people in America that means the 4th of July and everything that goes along with that. Barbecues. Fireworks. Festivals and ballgames of all sorts. And beer. Lots and lots of beer. But in that curious sub-culture of medical education the first weekend in July means the first time on call for newly minted interns and newly promoted residents and fellows of all sorts. Everyone and everything is new, just in time for July 4th and its aftermath.

Funny, but I ended up on call for every 4th of July in my four years of post-med school training. I’m not sure which, or how many, of the residency gods I offended, but whatever I did I apparently did in spades ’cause I hit the first weekend jackpot every year. I have no memory of my first on call as an intern, but the “Target Range” was open for business those first couple of years at Bellevue, for sure! In fact, if memory serves, the phrase “Target” was coined that very first weekend of that very first year as an ophthalmology resident.

“Hey Eye Guy! We got a John Q. Nobody who got shot in the temple just standing on the subway platform. Says he can’t see. Whaddaya want us to do with him? By the way…welcome to Bellevue.”

Crowds and beer and heat and stuff that explodes. Welcome to Bellevue, indeed. Some poor schlub survives the bar scene after the parade, makes it through pickpocket alley intact, gingerly stepping over detritus living and otherwise, only to get shot in the head as the A Train approached the station in a random act of anonymous violence. The bullet entered through the right temple, destroyed the right eye, and wreaked havoc in the left eye socket before coming to rest against the left temple. Right eye gone and malignant glaucoma in the only remaining left eye. And there I was, all of 3 days into my opthalmology residency, backed up by a chief resident of similar vintage. Whoa…

There’s no way to avoid it. After all, med students have to graduate and residencies have to start some time. There’s just this unholy confluence of weak links in the system all coming together in time for the second (after New Year’s Eve) most difficult ER day in our big, academic hospitals. Get sick or injured on June 4th? Everyone’s on top of their game and everyone’s in town. July 4th? The fix is in, and the game is as rigged against you as any carnival game attended by a dentally challenged carnie.

As I sit here, an Attending on call for the 4th of July weekend, covering the ER and cowering each time the phone rings, the Tweets and Facebook posts heralding the arrival of a new crop of interns and residents send me back to Bellevue. Year 2, cursed again, covering the spanking new 1st year ophthalmology resident (was it Dave?) as he got his welcome “gift” from the ER. “Hey Eye Guy. We got a Target down here for ya. 10 year old girl. Some dumbass tossed a lit M80 to her and she caught it. Went off before she could get rid of it;  blew off her right hand and looks like her right eye is gone. You from NY? No? Welcome to Bellevue, pal.” Yup…there’s something about the 4th of July in every teaching hospital in the U.S., and just like everything else, whatever it is, there was more of it at Bellevue.

Only two kinds of people in New York, Targets and people who hit Targets. At Bellevue we took care of the Targets.

 

TANSTAAFL And “Mommy-Track” Docs

Uh oh. Now they’ve gone and done it. Someone has gone and rained the facts down on what is generally considered a feel–good story in American medicine, the dramatic increase in female doctors in America. In response to Dr. Herbert Parde’s “The Coming Doctor Shortage” article in the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Curtis Markel pointed out that there is a difference between the raw, gross number of physicians in America, and the EFFECTIVE number of practicing physicians.  Not only that, but he had the audacity to point out that roughly 50% of newly–minted American trained physicians are women, and that many of them do not practice full-time.

The NERVE of that guy. I mean, how dare he bring facts into a discussion of physician manpower? Wait a minute… maby that’s it right there… MANPOWER. This must be just another incidence of the male–dominated world of medicine cracking down on those female party-crashers. Except for the fact that…no… this really isn’t a case of that at all. Just an illumination of a significant part of a more general trend. When we look at the economics of physician resources the more important statistic is NOT the number of physicians working, but the number of physician–HOURS that are worked. Physicians newly minted in the United States in the last 20 years work fewer hours per week and annually than their predecessors, and “mommy–track” docs work even less.

That, my friends, is a fact–based reality of healthcare economics in the United States. The fact remains that Heinlein was right: there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. The facts do not care what you think. They do not they do not care how you feel about them. They do not go away and they do not change if you try to change the topic or bury them with obfuscation. Torn between self–righteousness (I’m staying home for my children) and righteous indignation (I work HARD), the mommy-track docs have fired back.

Unfortunately, their return fire has been little but emotion-loaded pellets, rather than fact–filled ordinance. An ER physician talks about choosing to work fewer shifts in order to tend to her family, or an ailing parent, or even to avoid “burnout”, and conflates the effects of these personal choices with her feelings about the effects of inequities between the compensation for so–called cognitive versus procedural specialties. Another talks about wanting to work part time with the thought that this will make her a more effective doctor. Still others try to shift the conversation from the “mommy–track” to general lifestyle considerations: I wish to “paint, or cycle, or just read.” All well and good, of course, but all also well beside the point. The fact remains that women physicians tend to work fewer hours than their male colleagues, those who have children take long stretches of time away from practicing medicine to do so, and both men and women recently trained tend to work measurably fewer hours than their predecessors did and do.

Sorry. You CAN’T have it all. Thinking that you can is a fantasy; it’s just not consistent with a fact–based reality. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. In medicine or anywhere else.

Please don’t get me wrong. I personally find absolutely nothing inherently wrong with working fewer hours or taking time out to have children. Back in the day there was often a terrible price to be paid because of the traditional work ethic of the American (mostly male) physician. The landscape is littered with the carcasses of medical marriages that didn’t survive this “profession first” rule. Substance abuse was rampant among these physicians, and the physician suicide rate was (and is) a multiple of the general population’s. Younger physicians, mommy–track and otherwise, are certainly onto something. The life balance that is so important to them is healthier in almost all respects, at least as far as the physicians themselves go. But in terms of our health care system as a whole? Nope. The facts say we either need more doctors, or doctors need to work more hours. To say that you, the physician, are making these choices for anything other than lifestyle reasons, to blame some reimbursement inequity or other external factor is disingenuous at best.  My mother used to call it “the consequences of your decisions”, but I prefer Heinlein. TAANSTAFL.

While there are some medical specialties that are very lucrative (neurosurgery, gastroenterology), the income that physicians take-home is generally reflective of how hard they work. How many hours per week they to spend doing clinical work. How much they actually do in each of those hours. General surgeons tend to make more money then family practitioners,  not so much because they get paid all that very much for any individual thing they do, but because they tend to work lots of hours, and they tend to do lots of work in each one of those hours. Nights, weekends, dinnertime, and long after Conan has called it a night, general surgeons are at work because the work needs to be done. The vast majority of primary care physicians work 40 hour weeks, hours that look more like the proverbial banker’s day than the surgeon’s. Nothing wrong with that, and neither is this always the case. I have a friend who is a very successful, family practitioner who is blessed and cursed with both ADD and insomnia. I think he works more than anyone I know, doctor or otherwise, and his income is consequently more like that of a general surgeon.

Perhaps an illuminating example would be the decision I made approximately five years ago to totally change the way I practice my specialty. Suffering from a severe case of professional and business dissatisfaction, I left an extremely successful practice (a practice that remains extremely successful in my absence) and started Skyvision, a very different type of eye care practice. (As an aside, when they finally got around to replacing me, it took TWO 30–something year-old physicians to do so.) At Skyvision I see many fewer patients each day, and consequently have a dramatically lower income. When presented with the Zen–like question “do you wish to be wealthy or happy” I chose happy. The decision has made me quite “UN–wealthy”, but I really am quite happy.

That is the fact–based reality of physician economics, my  little micro–economic example to explain the macro–economic effects of physician–hours versus physician numbers. There’s no one to blame. No government conspiracy. No specialty vs. primary care inequity. I am the sole bread–winner in a home with a “mommy–track” Mom. There are more eye doctors where I live because some of the eye doctors who are already here, mommy–track or otherwise, are now working less.

Are mommy–track docs the sole problem why we face a pending physician shortage in the United States? Of course not. We have a decades–long history of new physicians working fewer hours than their predecessors, a relatively static number of new physicians being trained, and an ever–expanding population of patients who need the care of these physicians. No matter how they might FEEL about it, and no matter how they might feel about having it pointed out, the fact remains that, on average, newly–minted doctors work fewer hours than their predecessors, and mommy–track docs, on average, work fewer hours than their peers. Wanna stay home with your kids? Cool. 12 weeks to bond with the new baby? Sure, who WOULDN’T want that. Just “man up” and face the facts–you can’t have it all. Nobody can. Be a grown up and accept the consequences of the choices that you have made, and accept this gracefully when someone else points that out in the Wall Street Journal or elsewhere.

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Somebody, somewhere, always pays.

Tales From Bellevue Hospital: The Blue Chair

Bellevue Hospital, and the Bellevue Hospital residents provide medical care for the New York City prisoners who are housed at Riker’s Island. This is actually quite an opportunity, especially for a child of suburbia like yours truly. It’s not as if I had never come across people in the criminal justice system prior to my Bellevue days, it’s just that I didn’t have such routine and regular contact.I don’t remember exactly, but there are at least three or four entire floors at Bellevue dedicated to the care of Riker’s Island inmates who have medical problems. One or two are for the criminally insane, and others who have some degree of mental illness. The remaining two floors house prisoners with problems as varied at coronary artery disease and pink eye. As disconcerting as it was for someone like me to enter a locked ward, the accommodations at Bellevue were at least a full order of magnitude nicer than those at Riker’s Island. This provided an interesting opportunity for Riker’s Island inmates to create a medical reason to leave The Rock, and created a very interesting learning opportunity for all of the residents  to discern real from not so real.

This  might have been the most fun part of my entire residency experience.

People who have something to gain from having an eye problem all seem to have the exact same complaint: “I can’t see.” Sometimes it’s “I can’t see out of my right (or left) eye,” and sometimes it’s simply “I can’t see.” The savvier the patient, the more subtle the symptom. The trick as the doctor on call is to simply demonstrate that their vision is substantially better than what they are describing. Oh yeah, it’s important to do so in such a way that you don’t make them too very angry; you don’t want to become a Bellevue Hospital “target” yourself!

Every resident develops a repertoire tricks that he or she will use, a go–to list that tends to work for the majority of the malingering patients. To be truthful, especially when caring for children, sometimes the patient is actually convinced that he or she really CAN’T see. The kids are really pretty easy, though. I found, and frankly continue to find, that even with my limited attention span (often described as being slightly shorter than that of your average gnat) that I have more patience than almost any child under the age of 18. Most eye charts will start with a 20/10 line, and then move through 20/12, 20/15, and then several to many 20/20 lines. If you start at 20/10, by the time you get the 20/25 or 20/30 that line looks absolutely enormous! I think I’m batting about .997 in kids with 20/400 vision in the ER who “miraculously” and up with 20/25 vision in the exam room.

Folks who have something to gain from being diagnosed with visual loss weren’t always wards of the state or city. Occasionally there would be people who stood to gain from being diagnosed with profound visual loss for other, less existential reasons than wanting a ticket out of Riker’s Island. My favorite was a Hispanic woman who came with an entourage of family members, her complaint being complete and total loss of vision in both eyes from some vague and poorly defined trauma suffered at the hands of a landlord who was trying to evict the her from a rent–subsidized apartment. Her examination was totally unremarkable. Everything about her eyes was so  normal it was eerie. My suspicions were high because she just didn’t seem all that distraught over her new blindness, you know? There’s an instrument called an indirect ophthalmoscope which is used to examine the peripheral retina. The light we use can be cranked up to a level which is quite frankly rather painful. I explained to my patient through her translator that I was terribly sympathetic, and very concerned about how she would ever be able to survive if she was  evicted, what with her being totally blind and all. I just had this one last test to do, to look at her retina. With phasersset on stun I started to examine her eyes with the light cranked up. She started screaming in Spanish. What’s she saying? What’s she saying? Remember, now, this is a woman who has no light perception, everything in her world is black. Her son grabbed my arm and started yelling at me. “Turn that light off. It’s too bright. It’s hurting her eyes!” Yup, just another satisfied patient.

The prisoners really were the most fun, though. You had to be on your toes because some of them were actually quite dangerous. If the corrections officers were chatting amongst themselves in the waiting room you could be pretty sure that the patient in your exam chair was nonviolent. If, however, there was a corrections officer standing roughly 1/2 inch from each arm of the patient, well, that was one you had to worry about. But the prisoners got it, they got that this was a game. If they could beat me they got a stay at the Bellevue Hilton. On the other hand, if I got the best of them, it was back to Riker’s Island. The guys who complained of decreased vision in just one I were actually not too difficult to fool. Again, all I had to do was prove that the vision and the supposedly “blind” I was normal. We quote discovered” all kinds of sight threatening needs for a new pair of glasses at two o’clock in the morning in the Bellevue consultation room.

The guys who complained of decreased or lost vision in both eyes were more challenging and therefore more fun. Can’t see anything at all? Piece of cake. All I have to do was prove that they had locked on to some image. There must be three dozen prisoners who complained of total loss of vision in both eyes who headed back to Riker’s Island one minute after entering my consultation room after they leaned over to pick up the $10 bill that I put on a footstool of the exam chair. Did you know that your pupils constrict when you focus on an image inside arm’s-length? You can imagine how handy that three-year-old Sports Illustrated bathing suit issue came in, and how many prisoners learned about accommodative pupillary construction after looking at THAT picture of Christie Brinkley.

There is one story out of all of my adventures with the Riker’s Island prisoners that stands apart. It was July, and I was doing my duty helping out the new first-year resident on one of his first nights on call. We got a call from the ER about this terrified patient who had lost vision in both of his eyes; he was defenseless. Dave, now a world famous pediatric ophthalmologist, was really unsure of how to proceed so I told him that we would do it together. We sat back and watched very carefully as the prisoner entered the room. He was totally on his own, not assisted in the least by the corrections officers. He managed to navigate around all of the little articles I had placed between the door and examination chair, not hitting a single one. He found the chair, turned just like you or I would, and sat down. His examination was perfect, naturally. After putting drops in his eyes to dilate his pupils this is what I said: “I can see that you are terribly frightened sir, and frankly I can’t blame you. I’m very concerned about your vision, and I’m going to do everything I possibly can to make sure that you are alright. I just put some drops into your eyes so that your pupils will dilate. Dr. Granet and I will then examine your retinas once the drops have worked. We are going to talk about what we’ve seen so far. Please go back into the hallway and take a seat in the blue chair, and we’ll come and get you in just a few minutes.” The prisoner left the room, once again navigating the “mine field” without incident.

Dave bowed his head, a little tiny twitch at the corner of his mouth as he shook his head. “There’s only one blue chair out there, isn’t there?” He smiled as he strolled over to the door. Sure enough, there was our patient, very calmly sitting in the single blue chair, surrounded by a dozen empty red ones!

We had to invite the corrections officers into the exam room when we explained our findings.

Tales From Bellevue Hospital: Saving a Target Part II

Little did I know how hard it was going to be to help my Bellevue target, Jean. He didn’t know he was being mugged when the gangbanger asked him for his jacket. How could he? He only spoke French. He couldn’t tell the police officer who came to the scene that it was HE who had been assaulted. How could he? He only spoke French! At Riker’s Island he had no idea that the gangbanger sharing his cell was demanding his fancy, leather sneakers. How could he? He, well, you know…

So what could I do? How could I help? What could I possibly do to help make the end of this very bad day a little bit better? Well, first off, I clearly needed to make sure that Jean did not go back to Riker’s Island any sooner than was absolutely necessary. The prison guards, who had now become quite a bit more interested in Jean knowing  his story, agreed that nothing but very bad things were likely to happen to this young, skinny, soft boy from France if he ended back at Riker’s. We decided to keep him at Bellevue as long as we could.

What else? Well, the theme that runs through John’s very bad first day in America was his total inability to tell HIS side of whatever story he was in because he spoke only French. I decided that what he really needed was to be able to tell his story, and to do so we needed someone to translate for him once he left Bellevue. No problem, right? I mean, we were in New York City, the biggest, most cosmopolitan city in all of America. Should be a snap.

It turns out that there’s actually quite a bit of France in New York. I called the French Consulate hoping to have someone from France take charge of my French target. It was pretty late at night, around midnight if I recall, and the consulate was closed. “Please leave a message…” No problem. Bellevue is on 1st Ave. at 27th St., and United Nations is only a couple dozen blocks north on the same Avenue. I rang up the French delegation to the UN. They, too were closed. “Please leave a message…”

I imagined out loud what it must be like to call France itself. You know, just ring up the country and talk with whoever answers the phone. This was back in the days of answering machines, not those ubiquitous “for thus and such press one” messages. At midnight midweek I told the guards it would certainly go something like this: “Thank you for calling France. Our business hours are Monday through Friday, nine o’clock in the morning until five o’clock in the afternoon. If you would like to negotiate a trade agreement, sign a peace treaty, or seek political asylum, please call back during normal business hours.”

Okay then, plan B. Lots of other folks speak Parisian French in New York City. I thought the next logical place to look for Francophones would be at a French restaurant. Good thinking, right? At this time in the mid-1980s the most famous French restaurant in the United States was Le Cirque, so I gave them a call. A  little after midnight the restaurant was still open and still busy. I asked the woman who answered the phone if anyone there spoke French. Yes, indeed, there were lots of folks who spoke French. In fact, there were more than a dozen French citizens who worked at Le Cirque! Great, I said, I have this young man from France who has been assaulted and he needs someone to help him tell his story to the police and to the judge. (I was getting visibly psyched; the prison guards were smiling). Oh no, Monsieur, we are MUCH too busy to do any such thing. We could not POSSIBLY have anyone available to provide that type of service. Have a pleasant evening Monsieur.

Wow. Made me think of that Robin Williams routine where he describes a conversation with a Frenchman. “(Puffs on a Galoise) We are French (sneers)… we don’t care.”

Now I’m stuck. It’s almost 1 o’clock in the morning and I can’t think of any other way to get someone to translate for Jean. Think! Think… think… think. What would I do if it was ME? Who would I call if I was in a foreign country and needed a translator, needed help with the language and the authorities? And then it hit me: American Express Global Assist! Remember those commercials? Any help you could ever need any time anywhere, as long as you were a cardholder, American Express would be there. I reached into my pocket, pulled out my wallet, and took out my own American Express card (which I had never actually used). I dialed the number on the back of the card and the very helpful operator connected me to American Express Global Assist, and the equally helpful operator there put me on with the head of their French translation department, right there and then. I told her the sad story of Jean the target and then handed him the phone.

SCORE!

The only thing left to do now was to keep the Jean at Bellevue through the night so that he wouldn’t have to go back to Rikers; my friendly pair of prison guards pointed out that if we did, indeed, do this, Jean would miss the bus taking him to court, and would end up spending an extra day at Rikers. The guards were now fully into the project, however, and they agreed to ride the bus with Jean back to Rikers, and to sit with him in a duty room so that he did not have to go back into the prison population. Not only that, they personally escorted into court (off the clock, on their own time) and delivered him to a French speaking attorney whose assistance had been arranged  by American Express Global Assist. Upon hearing the story the judge threw out all charges, and the city of New York and American Express put Jean on a plane home to France that very afternoon.

There’s a very nice epilogue to this story as well. Many months later I received a letter in that same consultation room at Bellevue Hospital. There was a brief type written note from American Express. Dear Dr. White, we apologize for the delay in delivering this note. In the excitement of helping Jean we failed to obtain any of your contact information. Please accept our apologies. Please let us know if we can ever be of any assistance to you, or your patients, in the future. Sincerely. The note was wrapped around a postcard, the message written in French.

Thank you for saving my son’s life.

There are only two kinds of people in New York City, targets and people who hit targets. At Bellevue Hospital we took care of the targets.